Syria conflict: UK to repatriate orphaned children

Image source, Reuters

A number of orphaned British children caught up in the war in Syria are to be brought home to the UK, the foreign secretary has said.

They will be the first UK citizens to be repatriated from the area of north-eastern Syria formerly controlled by the Islamic State (IS) group.

The "innocent" children should "never have been subjected to the horrors of war", Dominic Raab said.

Charities have urged the government to bring every British child back home.

Those who are returning are expected to arrive in the UK in the coming days.

For security reasons, further details of their repatriation cannot be given.

In a statement, Mr Raab said: "We have facilitated their return home, because it was the right thing to do.

"Now they must be allowed the privacy and given the support to return to a normal life."

BBC Middle East Correspondent Quentin Sommerville said the orphaned children were handed over to a delegation from the Foreign Office and had left Syria, with diplomats saying they were doing "very well".

IS once controlled 88,000 sq km (34,000 sq miles) of territory stretching from western Syria to eastern Iraq.

The fate of foreign IS fighters and other foreigners caught up in the conflict has been a key issue since the defeat of the extremist group was declared in March 2019.

The UK had been reluctant to take back citizens from the area.

Other countries including France, Denmark, Norway and Kazakhstan have brought children home.

The United Nations has said countries should take responsibility for their own citizens unless they are to be prosecuted in Syria in accordance with international standards.

Save The Children - which runs services from two centres in northern Syria - welcomed the repatriation of the orphaned children but called on the government to do more.

The charity estimates there are up to 60 British children still in Syrian camps, the majority of which are with their mothers.

Orla Minogue, a humanitarian adviser at the charity, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the children are facing "absolutely dire" conditions, including overcrowding, a shortage of clean water and limited medical care.

"Those children are just as innocent as those others," she said.

And she urged the government to act quickly, warning of a "brief time window" to getting them out safely.

"All of these children need to be repatriated now - especially as we head into winter conditions - these camps are not set up for this kind of harsh weather we might see in Syria."

Human Rights Watch has described government-facilitated repatriations of foreign nationals as "piecemeal."

It says more than 1,200 foreign nationals have been repatriated from both Syria and Iraq to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, Kosovo, and Turkey.

Alison Griffin, head of humanitarian campaigns at Save The Children, said the UK government "is transforming the lives of these innocent children who have been through terrible things that are far beyond their control".

She added: "They will now have the precious chance to recover, have happy childhoods and live full lives. We should be proud of everyone who has worked to make this happen.

"Every child saved is a triumph of compassion in the face of cruelty. We fervently hope this is just the start."